Central Americans Fleeing them Should Qualify for Asylum
Alexis Orrick, Miriam Nuñez and Maomi Mojica
Many Central Americans have been forced to flee their native countries due to the corruption and ongoing violence that has become prominent in their everyday lives in the past few years. One of the greatest motivators for migration is the vicious gang violence that controls Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Some of the largest operating gangs in Central America are Mara Salvatrucha-13 and Calle 18, which see anyone who is not on their side as a threat to, putting people’s lives in danger. These organizations also recruit youth to join their gangs. If they refuse, they are often pressured into joining or killed. If someone is involved with a gang, it automatically puts their family and loved ones in danger, as rival gangs may persecute their family members and leave people with no choice but to flee for safety. Many Central Americans try to seek asylum in the United States, but they are left waiting for their court dates in Mexican border towns, where they face drug cartels, kidnappings, human trafficking, homelessness, and hunger.
As it currently stands, US asylum law only allows people to obtain asylum if they are in a specific category whom their home country government targets and/or fails to protect. These categories include “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” (American Immigration Council, 2019).
As part of our research, we attended immigration court sessions to see this law in action, and we watched immigration judges repeatedly dismiss Central American victims of gang violence as people fleeing “criminals” and therefore not worthy of asylum. The Judges seemed to brush off migrants’ stories of persecution, as if crime was inevitable and did not compare to the persecution of people in the existing protected categories. Based on our preliminary research and conversations with asylum seekers in Tijuana, we found this characterization to be a dangerous simplification that misrepresented the complex organization of gangs and the control that gangs have over Central Americans. When judges dismissed gang members as troublesome criminals, they did not address the implications of highly organized crime for non-affiliated people trying to make a living in their countries of origin. This led us to our research question, how are the experiences of victims of gang violence similar to those of people fleeing from political persecution? Or in other words, how are Central American gangs similar to dystopian states?
How are Central American gangs similar to dystopian states?
Our conversations with asylum seekers revealed that gangs perform three especially state-like functions. These were 1) taxation, 2) policing and persecuting dissenters, and 3) having near total surveillance over areas in their control. All of these functions make it easy for gangs to coerce people into contributing to gang activities and force those who disobey them to flee the country and seek asylum elsewhere. We argue that given similarities between gang violence and political persecution by oppressive states, fleeing gang violence (specifically from highly organized gangs in Central America) should be integrated into US asylum law.
We first provide a bit of context about the general structure of the extremely complex gangs in Central America. According to an article by David Cantor (2014), there are three major groups in Central America that lead to what the author calls “Forced Displacement.” These are the Maras, or street gangs, the drug transporters, and the Mexican drug cartels. These three groups contribute to displacement in various ways as they use different tactics and tools to control territories in Central America. The group that we will focus on most is the Maras in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, as these were the primary driver of migration for the Central American asylum seekers we interviewed in Tijuana.
The Maras are organized in a way that resembles a state. They often have what is called a “Council of Leaders” to rule over the entirety of the gang, while sub-units called “clikas” (cliques) are individual sections that control their own parts of the land, sounds similar to a federal system (Cantor 2014). The gangs control two types of territories: the first is the “core” of their territory which is often subject to much harsher rules such as curfews and the unofficial rule to “look, listen, and shut up” when encountering illegal activity practiced by the gang. The second part of the territory is the periphery where people are often subject to taxation and gang-related violence. Cantor claims that there are 4 main “everyday” reasons that these gangs drive forced migration (2014). The first is that a member of the gang betrays the gang, which often leads to death threats, labelling, and threats to family members, which is also a consequence of resisting the gangs (in the form of refusing to pay taxes, moving to a rival land, etc). The third and fourth reasons include land appropriation by gangs and heightened insecurity in the region due to high crime and violence (Cantor 2014).
In our interviews, respondents echoed this analysis of the Maras. We, too, saw that gangs operate transnationally with Mexican cartels to reinforce power and further terrorize migrants in transit in Mexico, even when those migrants believed they had found refuge and safety. In this paper we elaborate on these points by explaining what effect gangs’ statelike practices has on the actions and relationships of the Maras with average citizens, who have been forced to migrate to Tijuana in hopes of getting asylum in the US.
Our data include 43 in-depth interviews with Central American asylum seekers in Tijuana, conducted between January and March, 2020. The interviews were unstructured and did not have a set list of questions, which allowed respondents to say what they wanted to say about their own stories. The interviewers mostly asked clarifying questions and follow-up questions related to themes of interest. These themes included family life and motherhood, gang violence, discrimination, and violence perpetrated by Mexican and US authorities. The interviews ranged from about 15 minutes to 2 hours, with the average being about an hour. The interviewees also responded to a survey after the interview, which enabled us to note the demographic characteristics of the respondents such as age, gender, country of origin, etc. They took place in Tijuana, Mexico in private spaces of four of the most prominent and popular migrant shelters in the city: Casa del Migrante, Espacio Migrante, Madre Asunta, and Ejercito de Salvacion.
The interviewers included 31 UCSD graduate and undergraduate students, most of whom were fluent in Spanish and identified as Latinx. Student interviewers were trained on interviewing ethics and conduct as part of a year-long academic program to research immigration at the US-Mexico border. The interviewers also volunteered at the shelters, attended events, and did activities with the migrants to build relationships before jumping in to interviews. They tried to approach a wide range of people at different shelters to avoid a sample bias, offering to conduct interviews in both Spanish and English so a range of respondents could participate if they wanted to. When we analyzed the interviews, the theme we looked for was Central American gangs acting more similarly to governments than to street criminals. We looked specifically for examples of taxation, policing, persecution of dissenters, and surveillance.
Limitations to our data include the number of interviews conducted and the differences in probing questions by different interviewers (this drew out some very specific data from some respondents and less in others). People who are more reserved, shy, or afraid of interviews are missing from the data. There also may have been people who misunderstanding our motives or suspected we were informants to the US system, which could have introduced a response bias. Another potential bias is that asylum seekers may have tried to exaggerate their stories in order to “prove” that the persecution they endured was severe or that they deserved asylum. Regardless, we believe that the interviews included in this paper help illustrate the parallels between Central American gangs and despotic states. In what follows, we elaborate on the three key ways gangs at like states.
Central American Gangs Collect Taxes
The first point we hope to illustrate is that Central American gangs tax businesses, creating stress and uncertainty in families and undermining their well being. Gangs in Central America intimidate families and owners of small businesses into paying a cuota, also known as a war tax, every so often. If a family fails to pay this fee they risk losing their business or home, and often their lives. In many cases, these businesses are small convenience stores for their communities or agricultural businesses. Many families in rural parts of Central America depend on agriculture for a daily income or to put food in their bodies, but when their lives depend on it, they often have to pay this cuota to gangs just to keep their business running until they come back to ask for a cuota again. Families often flee their homes and all they know because paying their meager livelihood to a gang feels unfair, or because, with little income to start with, they are unable to meet the cuotas and face threats of death.
A prime example is “R,” a 18-year-old woman from Honduras who had to flee the country with her dad because – due to the tax imposed by a local gang – they could not afford to provide for her two younger brothers and mother. They had to move from their home in the city to their grandparents’ town due to the increased gang violence and extortion, including paying ‘impuestos’ (taxes). R explained:
They came and they said ‘We come to collect the tax.’ [I said] that, ‘I don’t know what?’ [They said] that, ‘If you don’t, we are going to kill you.’ [I said] that, ‘I don’t know what that is and how-‘ And we all stood there like (surprised expression). So my dad gave them the money and they left… But there are other people who, since they are poor, [the gangs] take away their house, and sometimes they kill and such. It looks very ugly in the city.R, 18-year-old woman from Honduras
This kind of story, a traumatizing event for anyone, was common. Many respondents talked about how gangs had forced their families out of their homes using intimidation tactics. Often, minors like R – who was 16 at the time this happened – also had to witness the threats first hand.
In a different interview, an 18-year-old man we call “J,” who was an unaccompanied minor at the time of migration, told us about what led him to leave Honduras and his family. He explained that his family already had an unstable income, and then gangs began to intimidate his mother demanding a cuota. He described:
So when I got home I said to my mom, ‘Listen, I am leaving in a week. I just want to be with you this week, and I want you to tell me whatever you want to tell me because I am going to say goodbye to you.’ But when I retuned to home again there was already organized crime in my town. There were people who collected rent to live and they had already come to my mom. She had a business so the money that I had saved I had to give to those people if I wanted my mom to stay alive.J, 18-year-old man from Honduras
Again, we see how a teenager in such conditions was forced to leave their childhood behind to help their family survive. Younger children living in these conditions were also robbed of their childhoods, having to mature and act like adults due to the fear that gangs instilled in them. When this individual left his home in Honduras for the first time, he went to get a job nearby in hopes that he could return and help his family, but instead he had to give all his hard-earned money to the gang to cover the tax that was due.
Many Central American individuals lived in fear of gang extortion, and some even questioned whether life was worth it. In the following quote, D, a 29-year-old woman from Honduras, explained how, after her brother was killed, the gang asked for money, threatening that if they were not paid, they would kill her and her family. She recounted:
So, fifteen days after his death they call me from an unknown number, and they tell me that if I did not pay the amount of ten thousand dollars that they would murder me just as they had murdered my brother and that if I paid they would forgive my life and they would also let me live in peace and that my family would not be in danger.– D, 29-year-old woman from Honduras
We found that across our interviews, the “cuota” (extortion) was at the root of many Central American’s decisions to leave home. As under a dictatorial state, extortion imposed both financial hardship and the threat of death. Respondents recalled having to decide whether to eat or to give up their food money in order to save their lives.
Hand-in-hand with this tactic, we often heard about how gangs kept an eye out on business owners, watching their every move to be sure they paid their cuotas. In the next section, we explore how gangs also used policing to maintain control over local communities.
Central American Gangs Use Policing to Persecute Dissenters
The second point we hope to illustrate is that Central American Gangs use policing – by their own paramilitary forces – to persecute dissenters. This makes it impossible for asylum seekers to return home, because it is likely they will be found and harmed by these paramilitary groups. Returning is especially dangerous for people who have openly defied the gang, for example by leaving the gang or refusing to pay gang “taxes.” Out of the 43 Central American asylum seekers we interviewed, 21 described or alluded to some type of paramilitary police force that persecuted those who defied the gang.
One interview that was especially illustrative was of a “K,” a 35-year-old woman who had been part of the police force in El Salvador. K explained that she fled her country because she had been part of a team that killed the leader of a gang, and she was consequently persecuted and abused by the gang’s (paramilitary) “police.” K described:
When I got home I saw the door knocked down, thrown aside. I imagined the worse and that had happened. With the police right out front in their booth. Two steps from my house, they could not do anything for my daughter, nothing. They killed her, they took out her organs, and in all of this you would that the police would listen? They didn’t want to listen to me. They fear the cartels. Then what happened from there, well, they came, they came – I had my daughter in a coffin. And he said to me, ‘So are you going to join us? Because you already killed our boss.’ I told them I, I did not kill your boss, there were like thirty officers there, why can you say it was me? So he hit me with the pistol, this right here (shows us the mark on her cheek) he knocked my whole jaw down, and that was when I came to Tijuana.– K, El Salvador
Not only is K’s story exceptionally heartbreaking, but it illustrates the power and control that the gang had over her community, including the police who lived right in front of her home. Those police could not save K or her 14-year-old daughter, who was murdered by the gangs, despite her own role in the local police force. Instead, by doing her job to fight against “crime”, K ended up a target of the gangs’ “police.” In this case, the gang was more powerful and organized than the government. K went on to describe how the gang also attacked her as well:
They raped me, they kidnapped me, I – I have some cigar scars where they were telling me that they were asking for $170,000 pesos to let me go. ‘From where am I going to give you that if I don’t have, I don’t have money?’ So the more I said no, the more they put the burning cigar on me. I have all the marks there, on my feet, on my legs.K, El Salvador
This quote illustrates how even when people sought to flee the gangs, they were pursued by gang “police,” including across borders – as K’s account spilled into her attempt to escape into Mexico. People like K felt they were at risk wherever they went, due to the organized structure of gang policing.
Another interview with V, a 26-year-old man from Honduras who had participated in a gang as a sentry before deciding to flee, highlights these same themes. V was working for a gang and ended up leaving because he didn’t like their practices. As a dissenter, he was targeted and threatened with death. V described:
I worked for several months with them [the gang] and from there – this time I left. I worked two years with them and the truth is that I suffered because you have to hit all the other people. You also have to go around asking for rent from the stores, you have to force them to pay you a certain amount weekly ‘for the family,’ because they say that the MS-13 are all a family for the people in the streets. And the truth is that I worked like, well, two years with them. This time they say that I am (inaudible) and I cannot return there. If I return they could force me to start working with them or even kill me. If I returned I would already know what I would need to go do because I would have to put a value on my life and work for them always, and that is why I decided – I asked for political asylum in the United States.– V, 26-year-old man from Honduras
V fully explained the consequences of returning to his home country, which he was certain would be either to have to continue to extort his own community and work with the gang or to get killed. His story shows the powerful work of gang policing and their ability to control the community by persecuting dissenters. V also talked about the way he planned to visit his family, and how he must take precautions if he wanted to stay in the country for even a week. He went on:
This year I will go see my family for a week and come back again, because I can’t be there very much time. Because I can be in danger and my family as well, because if I am inside my house -and they find out I am there inside, they could go and kill my whole family and me. So it’s something secret, just for a week and then back again.– V, 26-year-old man from Honduras
As V described, his refusal to continue participating in the gang affected not only him but also his entire family. We will go into detail about the phenomenon of surveillance in the next section, but it is important to note that policing and persecution is so extensive that acts like returning to one’s home country for a week can be fatal.
Most of the asylum seekers we interviewed from Central America described persecution, threats, and violent attacks by paramilitary gang “police” forces. The reach of these forces is so broad that migrants believed returning meant certain death. Therefore, it is hard to categorize the gangs as mere street criminals. Instead, like states, they wield their power to oust those who stand against them. They do this by tracking people who challenge them directly or indirectly, like K or V, and by tracking down those who try to return.
Most asylum seekers felt they could return to their home countries because of this violence. Instead, as they tried to stand up to the cycles of violence that happened back home, they felt left with two choices: get to the US or die. Inasmuch as these people attempt to stand up to the corrupt and violent bodies of power that control their communities, they are similar to political refugees fleeing persecution on the basis of state violence.
Central American Gangs Exercise Near Total Surveillance
Our final point is that gangs surveil people, particularly dissenters or those who are in some way close to the gang, such as gang members’ families. In this case, we use the word surveillance to refer to the act of watching people closely and accessing their private and everyday lives. Gangs’ ability to control communities relies in part on access to people’s private information, like their address or the identities of their family members, and gives them the type of authority that states and governments wield as well. Of 43 interviews, we found that 19 people mentioned being surveilled by gangs.
In one example, P, a 28-year-old woman who fled Honduras after a gang murdered her husband for dissenting, described how the gang followed her everywhere. She said she felt they always knew where she was, and she could not escape, even when she fled to Mexico. She explained:
I got depressed. I got very depressed and so much that I was about to commit suicide. And it made me fed up. I got mad because I could no longer handle everything. I could not deal with the pressure of knowing that they were looking for me, that at any moment they could come and kill me here. And that I would know that among these thousands of people there could be someone that – that is, in that moment I was traumatized, traumatized from knowing they could kill me at any moment. So I tried to kill myself.P, 28-year-old woman from Honduras
P was so terrified by this surveillance that she felt there was no way out and tried to commit suicide to escape. This quote exemplifies the potential effects of being surveilled by one of the world’s most powerful gangs. Gang surveillance can severely affect people’s mental health, and like P, many other people we interviewed also felt heavily surveilled, trapped, and afraid for their lives.
Another interview that illustrates how gangs surveil people in Central America was of “K,” the police officer who tried to flee persecution by a gang in El Salvador after being involved in the execution of a gang leader. Even after K arrived in Tijuana, the Salvadoran gang’s allies in Mexico found her and assaulted her. She described:
And well I was working here [in Mexico]. I was on this street here. I was working, and I spent everyday at this hostel, when they kidnapped me again here. On November 15. They kidnapped me here, they beat me, they did what they wanted to do to me, they hurt my body a lot and even got me pregnant.K, Latin America
As K explained, even when she tried to flee from the violence, the gang’s associates ended up finding her and kidnapping her for a second time, where she was once again raped and tortured, and impregnated by one of her rapists. She was able to get an abortion but continued to live in fear and cope with trauma.
Other interviewees explained that gang surveillance forced them to move or scared them out of interacting with other people. For instance, M, a 28-year-old asylum seeker fleeing Honduras, described her fear of going in the streets because of her history of gang persecution. She detailed how the gang members had been able to find her everywhere and how their Mexican associates continued to threaten her and her children. She said that even in Tijuana:
I don’t feel safe to walk on the street. And I rarely go out on the street. And when I do go out, I go with another person or I go in an Uber or I try to any way [I can], but it only means that when I avoid those things, I am only a little safe because still, I tell you, the cartels are like a branch [of the gang].– M, 28-year-old woman from Honduras
In another example, an interviewee we call “W” described how she constantly had to flee due to threats she received from gangs.
I had to change my place, my home, because I ended up fleeing, because I felt persecuted by the gangs, by the same gangs that had killed my brother … They were the same people who had murdered him.– W, woman from Honduras
W mentioned how she was constantly on the run, fleeing from her brother’s gang, the same one that killed him, because she was afraid the same would happen to her.
Living like this, running from fear, knowing you cannot turn to the police because they do not have the power to stop these gangs, is not a life. Many Central Americans choose to leave their home countries because they are in danger and do not feel safe, and they cannot turn to the authorities for help. Using extortion, policing, and surveillance, the gangs have simply become too powerful.
Many Central Americans first flee to Mexico, where cartels operate similarly to Central American gangs and also work closely with these gangs or extend their surveillance, making Mexico just as dangerous as Central America for some asylum seekers. These are not small street criminals but massive criminal organizations with a structure that operate like states, instilling fear as they acquire more power.
In this essay, we illustrated how how gang taxation, policing and persecuting dissenters, and surveillance have driven Central Americans out of the places they call home. We showed how taxation plays a significant role in Central Americans’ decision to migrate, since they are not able to pay the fees gangs require for them to keep their businesses running. Adding to the fear of not knowing how to afford their next meal, evidence also shows how gangs are policing, persecuting, and keeping close surveillance on the people who challenge them, whether or not they stay in Central America. It’s as if these migrants are walking targets regardless of where they land geographically.
Based on this evidence, we argue that Central American asylum seekers fleeing gangs should be treated similarly to other refugees fleeing despotic states. As it stands, they are often treated as if they are running from street criminals, when in practice they escape from highly organized institutions that pursue them in the same way that states do.
While this paper focuses on Central American gang victims in the American asylum system, this is a global phenomena and other countries should also be open to accept victims of gang violence as refugees. Such changes in the US asylum system could set a precedent for a global community of understanding and acceptance against gang violence.
American Immigration Council. 2019. “Asylum in the United States.” http://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/asylum-united-states
Cantor, D. J. 2014. “The New Wave: Forced Displacement Caused by Organized Crime in Central America and Mexico.” Refugee Survey Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 3, pp. 34–68., doi:10.1093/rsq/hdu008.